Community Columns

One funny phrase deserves another

Last month, during a routine hair appointment, my hairdresser said something odd. First, let me back up and set the scene: CarolAnn was holding her snipping shears above my head, getting ready to cut, when I said, “I’ve gotta sneeze.”

We locked eyeballs in the mirror. Then she said, “Say, ‘How now brown cow.'”


“Ceil, my sister-in-law swears that this phrase stops a sneeze in its tracks.”

Feeling rather foolish, I repeated, “How now brown cow.”

Minutes passed while CarolAnn stood poised with the shears above my head, and nada! The sneeze retreated to wherever sneezes go.

Later that afternoon, I had an appointment with Dr. Dave, my chiropractor. After my adjustment, we scheduled an appointment for the following month.

As I was leaving, Dr. Dave said, “I’ll see you in the merry month of May.”

I made an about-face and asked, “Do you know how that phrase originated?”

He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Wait.”

Dr. Dave returned with a huge dictionary of pithy sayings and quotations. He said, “Ceil, keep it until your next visit.”

Upon arriving home, I immediately looked up the phrase “merry month of May.” I discovered that the words are part of a ballad entitled “Robin Hood and the Widow’s Three Sons.” The first stanza goes like this:

There are twelve months in all the year,

As I hear many men say,

But the merriest month in all the year

Is the merry month of May.

Okay, so now we all know.

Next, I looked up CarolAnn’s antidote to sneezing. “How now brown cow” is a nonsense saying. (I could have told you that.) It’s sometimes used for elocution lessons to demonstrate rounded vowel sounds. The book made no mention of the sneezing hypothesis.

Here’s one phrase that I thought originated with Mom: “(Celia), you’re flying by the seat of your pants.” In reality, this expression was used in early aviation. Back in the 1930s, aircraft had few navigational instruments and flying was accomplished by the pilot’s judgment and feel.

Frankly, I didn’t get the connection, so I called the source of my confusion.

“Mom, remember when you used to say, “Celia, you’re flying …” Mom finished the sentence, “by the seat of your pants.”

“Yes, that one.”

After sharing my new-found knowledge with Mom, I asked, “What exactly did you mean?”

“Celia, remember when you …”

I interrupted her mid-sentence. “Humph! Forgetaboutit, Mom.”

We’ve all heard the phrase “as snug as a bug in a rug.” Well, I for one can’t think of anything less snug than a bug in a rug. Imagine that you’re lying on a rug, watching TV and a bug starts emerging from its snug dwelling. Ewww! I mean, really, gross!

I won’t bore you with the long, complicated origin of this one; here’s a shorter version: In the 18th century, “snug” was used to mean “neat and trim.” The text goes on to say that no one is entirely sure why insects are called bugs. Then somehow, the word “rug” was added. The first known example of this phrase is found in David Garrick’s celebration of Shakespeare in 1769.

“If she (a rich widow) has the mopus’s (coins or money), I’ll have her as snug as a bug in a rug.”

Pretty sinister, eh? I was a widow when I met Frank but I was “mopus-less.” And besides, that kind of thinking would be very un-Frank like.

I’m fascinated by this stuff but, alas, I’m allotted only so much space for my column. I’ve learned lots of nonessential bits and pieces, most of which I’ve omitted.

Then again, there were a couple of essential things that I did learn: A good mental jog made me realize that Mom was right (what’s new?); I did make some iffy judgment calls back then.

And thanks to CarolAnn, I now know what to do when I feel a sneeze coming on.

Ms. Iannelli is a resident of Jamesport.